Earlier this year, Lenny Mendonca, a former Senior Partner at the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Company, suddenly stepped down from his role as Chief Economic and Business Advisor to California Governor Gavin Newsom. During that time, he was working around the clock coordinating the state’s coronavirus response. To many, it was surprising that Lenny would leave this position when there was a lot more work to be done.
A few months later, Lenny revealed that he had faced a period of severe depression and anxiety, forcing him to take time off for self-care. Against the advice of his friends and colleagues, Lenny decided to share his experience publicly. He said, “Far too often, people suffer these illnesses with shame and without support.”
Why is it so hard for business leaders to share their mental health challenges openly?
That’s because, just like Lenny said, there is a sense of shame associated with mental illness. Society expects leaders, including entrepreneurs, to be invincible. When we talk about entrepreneurs, we think of them as being “tenacious” and “tough”. We probably don’t think too much about their emotional needs. For sure, entrepreneurs have to be tough to overcome all odds to succeed in building their businesses. Not only do they need to be tough for themselves, but they also need to be tough for their employees. When things don’t go well, they are the ones others count on for advice. During difficult times, when everyone else is feeling down, they are the ones expected to be positive. Many people see entrepreneurs as examples of mental resilience, but they may not see the struggles many entrepreneurs go through in order to exemplify that persona.
As a result of these societal expectations or collective willingness to “ignore the pain”, many entrepreneurs subconsciously built an “armor” to appear invincible, at least for self-protection.
But nobody is invincible. Entrepreneurs have fears and they make mistakes. Navigating competitive markets and executing plans carry inherent risks every day. The job itself is very stressful, and doing it day in and day out takes a toll on everyone. If entrepreneurs have to suppress the fears, or “fake it”, the stress will build up. Gradually, it will snowball into a much bigger health problem.
That’s why mental health affects entrepreneurs so harshly. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 1 in 6 people experience depression in their lifetime compared with 30% of entrepreneurs. Our society puts a lot of pressure on entrepreneurs to succeed. Entrepreneurs often work hard for many years before their business reaches a certain scale for them to hire enough staff. Being the main leader of the company, they may sit in a corner office with nobody to confide their own anxiety or fear. As leaders, entrepreneurs need to take care of their employees, but who takes care of them?
In the past 10 months, the pandemic lockdown has presented additional challenges to many entrepreneurs. In a July 2020 survey of 2,000 US workers conducted by Metlife, about 30% of employees said they were experiencing burnout, and 66% said they felt symptoms of burnout. Entrepreneurs are leaders in their companies. When they are taking steps to ensure the mental well-being of their employees, they could face burnout themselves.
Lenny Mendonca was brave to have openly shared his own experience with mental illness. There is a larger purpose behind that courage. He wanted to remove the stigma behind mental illness. He urged leaders to ensure people can find care and support for mental health challenges without negatively impacting their professional growth. As a society, we are not there yet, but I hope we will get there soon.
Other brave leaders have also been raising awareness for mental health occurring in the competitive business environment. Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of the Huffington Post, has been consistently advocating the importance of a good night’s sleep. She once collapsed in her Los Angeles office after two years of working 18 hours a day to build the business. That incident changed her life, and she has since been devoting time in advocating self-care for busy leaders. Since 2019, Harvard Business Review has been hosting a weekly podcast “The Anxious Achiever”, providing a space for entrepreneurs and business leaders to share their stories of anxiety and depression. Mora Aarons-Mele, the show’s host, is not shy about her own anxiety and has encouraged many others to open up about their struggles.
The challenge facing entrepreneurs is real, and it’s never going to go away. As an ex entrepreneur, I hope we can all be aware of the mental health challenges that we will inevitably face. More importantly, we should do our part to create an open and supportive community for entrepreneurs to thrive in. It takes courage to be vulnerable. I know we all have it in us, so let’s be brave.
Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.